A confession: I really don’t find American comedians funny. Well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve always loved Steve Martin and Bill Murray - but on the whole I can sit through an American comedy and barely crack a smile.
When Jim Carrey burst onto the scene with his pet detecting in the 1990s I found him irritating; Will Ferrell left me cold and Adam Sandler I found just plain juvenile. And yet each one of these comedians has impressed and moved me playing straight roles.
Jim Carrey’s performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), playing a man so heartbroken he chooses to have the memory of his girlfriend erased, is brilliant. Similarly, Will Ferrell gives a wonderful, nuanced performance in the highly underrated Stranger than Fiction (2006). In it he plays a man who has to must come to terms with the discovery he’s the character in an author’s novel. Adam Sandler’s best performance is as a salesman with server anger issues in Punch-Drunk Love (2002).
Do American comedians do their best work playing it straight? It certainly seems that way. Actors often acknowledge that comedy is the hardest thing to do, even if this is rarely recognised by those giving out awards.
The best example of comic turned straight man is Steve Carell.
Carell became a household name in the American version of The Office on TV and on the big screen with hits like The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005). By now though he has carved out a very respectable filmography playing straight roles, often as world weary men whom life has been less than fair to.
A fine example of his acting skills is this year’s Last Flag Flying, where Carell plays the father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. The role couldn’t be any further from comedy if it tried, and Carell turns in a brilliant performance, often stealing a scene with just a look or a sigh.
The latest Steve Carell comedy I can take or leave, but put him a dramatic lead and I’m the first in line.
By Tom Brookes.
From our weekly column in the Oswestry Advertizer, published in June 2018.